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You don't have to know Latin to talk about plants

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Janice Peterson
November 20, 2013

Your Aunt Tillie wants to dig up her snowball shrub and give it to you, but how do you know exactly what she's sharing? “Snowball” is a common name for many different plants including Viburnum opulus, Hydrangea macrophylla and Ceanothus rigidis. This is why the gardening community often discusses plants using scientific names instead of the common ones. With scientific nomenclature there is one and only one name for any plant.

Using this system an organism is given two names, a binomial. The first name is the genus (a more general name) and the second name is the species (a more specific name). Names are usually from Latin roots. The binomial system is used for all organisms whether they are plant, animal, bacteria, etc. - and that includes us humans, Homo sapiens. I find it amusing that the man who created this system was at various times known as Carl Linnaeus, Carolus Linnaeus, Carl von Linné, and Carl Linné – for a guy obsessed with proper nomenclature he sure used a lot of names!

Pronunciation is one of the difficulties gardeners complain about. Try saying Schizachyrium scoparium three times really fast! There are talking dictionaries available on the internet so you can actually hear the correct pronunciation. Try  www.howjsay.com. Not all the Latin names are difficult to say. Some are already in our everyday language, such as hosta, aster, clematis and forsythia. Although I love scientific names, sometimes I prefer the common name. Kiss-Me-Over-The-Garden-Gate is much more fun to say than Polygonum orientale.

The best part of the binomial system is that it helps describe the plant. Knowing that helios means sun, anthos means flower and annus means annual is very helpful in decoding Helianthus annus - annual sunflower.  Myosotis (forget-me-not) comes from mus (mouse) and otis (ear), and the leaves really do look like mouse ears!

Here are some common botanical words often encountered and their meanings:

alba – white

chinensis– from China

esculenta – edible

foetida – foul smelling

hirsutus – hairy

luteus - yellow

macraphyllus – big-leaved

nana – small

officinalis – with medicinal uses

purpurea – purple

repens – creeping

sylvestris – of woods

vulgaris – common

Much of this is information is available in plant name dictionaries (great Christmas gift idea!) or on internet sites such as http:www.floridagardener.com/misc/botanicaldictionary.htm

The third part of the naming puzzle is the variety, which gives an even more detailed description of what the plant will look like. For example, Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' is a Japanese maple with deep red fall color. Often we refer to plants just by their varietal name as in, “Look at that beautiful Bloodgood maple!”

There is much more complexity to naming plants than I've covered here. However, simply learning the basics is a great way to gain knowledge about the plants in your garden. As it gets colder outside, spend some time brushing up on your scientific nomenclature!



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